250 years of circus

It’s London, Easter Monday, 1768. Retired cavalryman, entrepreneur and incredible showman Philip Astley and his wife Patty, a trick rider, draw out a ring and fill it with astonishing acts – tumblers, horses, acrobats, jugglers, clowns.

They created the first circus in the world. 250 years later, Circus250 is celebrating the birth of this remarkable art form in a year-long programme of astounding events in circuses (new and old), museums, archives, film festivals, libraries, literary festivals and schools throughout England.

Ringmaster Dea Birkett tells us about the places that made circus history:

Astley's Amphitheatre in London 1808 (public domain) via wikipedia
Astley’s Amphitheatre in London 1808 (public domain) via wikipedia

Capturing the built history of circus is difficult. Unlike opera or theatre, there are few grand buildings. We don’t know what defined the ring in which Philip and Patty Astley put on their very first show, premiering Patty’s astonishing act of riding around smothered in a swarm of bees.

Perhaps it was nothing more than a rope laid out in a circle on the marshland by Waterloo, surrounded by a ring of sacks to sit on, with benches behind them as premium seats.

Perhaps the circumference was drawn by a ring of sandbags, echoing the painted wooden barrier around circus rings today. But we do know that its size was soon established.

Big top tent, Hartlepool, Durham. 2007 c Historic England DP044220
Big top tent, Hartlepool, Durham. 2007 © Historic England DP044220

The Astleys experimented with different sized rings to find the best which would enable them to stand easily on a horse’s back as it cantered around. They decided on 42ft diameter, due to the centrifugal forces. Any ring, anywhere in the world, has been 42ft in diameter ever since.

The Astleys’ new show was a huge success. Within a couple of years, they were building open wooden structures to house it. Within a decade, they added a roof. Others copied their popular format, and circus amphitheatres became popular places of art and entertainment in London, soon spreading across the country and abroad. Astley was building so many he was nicknamed ‘Amphi-Astley’.

But these structures were temporary and, being wooden, vulnerable to fire. They were replaced by more circus pop ups – a giant canvas tent known as the Big Top, brought from American in the 1820s and still used by circuses, both traditional and contemporary, today. Over 40 are currently touring Britain for the 250th anniversary year.

aa048178.tif
Interior view of circus. Tower Buildings, Blackpool. © Historic England AA048178

Blackpool Tower Circus is the only surviving Victorian arena still in use today, and one of only four original water circuses across Europe. The Grade I listed circus was not a stand-alone building, but is positioned at the base of the Blackpool Tower, between the four legs. Designed by Maxwell and Tuke, it opened to the public 14 May 1894.

Blackpool Tower. Image courtesy of Blackpool Council Historic Collections
Blackpool Tower. Image courtesy of Blackpool Council Historic Collections

Only a few years later, in 1900, the interiors were redesigned by Frank Matcham. Following his  visit to the Alhambra in Spain, he created an illusion of travel and fantasy, complete with a harem area. The Blackpool Gazette dubbed it a dream of ‘Moorish magnificence’. You can still visit this magnificence today.

Hippodrome exterior, courtesy of Great Yarmouth Hippodrome
Hippodrome exterior, courtesy of Great Yarmouth Hippodrome

The Hippodrome in Great Yarmouth, built in 1903 by legendary showman George Gilbert, is Britain’s last remaining building constructed entirely for circus. The mechanical water ring transforms into a gigantic pool, an original feature restored in 1979 by current owner Peter Jay. Like the Tower, it’s been in used for performances every season since.

DP081263 Hippodrome, Great Yarmouth, AB, 2009
Hippodrome, Great Yarmouth, AB, 2009 © Historic England Archive DP081263

Great Yarmouth and Blackpool are both defined by their proud built circus heritage. They are two of six Cities of Circus celebrating Circus250, alongside London (where circus was born), Bristol (which has more circus companies than any other city in Britain), Belfast and Newcastle-under-Lyme (where Astley was born).

Circomedia at St Paul's church, Bristol. - image courtesy of Circomedia
Circomedia at St Paul’s church, Bristol. – image courtesy of Circomedia

With only a few buildings, we have to find other ways to reveal circus history. The echoes of the circus linger long after the smell of the sawdust has disappeared. Because circus was the original pop up, it will have come to your town and, if you look hard enough, you’ll find signs of it – maybe nothing more than a street name. Hercules Road in Lambeth, London, was named after Astley’s strongman. But it took 250 years to officially honour the couple who founded such a fabulous British artform. Only this Easter Sunday was the original spot of the first circus finally recognised with a plaque to the Astleys.

Circus250  - Celebrating 250 years of Circus
Circus250 – Celebrating 250 years of Circus. © Image by Pete Maclaine / i-Images

Philip Astley, a travelling performer, died in Paris in 1814 and is buried somewhere in Père Lachaise Cemetery. His unmarked grave has been lost. We do not know what happened to Patty.

Today’s circuses often inhabit a new kind of historic building – churches. Many circus schools take place in churches no longer used for worship, due to their incredible height, including the biggest circus school in Britain, Circomedia in Bristol. They, too, are part of circus heritage and its homes. They continue in the radical spirit of Astley.

Dea Birkett and her Caravan credit Jenny Matthews
Dea Birkett and her caravan, courtesy of Jenny Matthews

Dea Birkett is ringmaster at Circus250. Find out more about Circus250 here

Thanks to Professor Vanessa Toulmin and Chris Barltop for their expert input.

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London Historiy Day is back and it’s bigger and better than ever. 

On Thursday 31 May 2018, more than 70 of London’s museums, galleries and cultural spaces will open their doors to reveal special behind the scenes tours, rarely seen exhibits and one off events, celebrating the capital’s unique identity.

Plan your London History Day.

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